By Susan Brodie
NEW YORK – “Chamber opera” sounds like an oxymoron, a shrunken version of the most lavish of art forms. Yet music drama on a pared–down scale can offer an intimate experience by dispensing with ornate sets and costumes, massed forces, the orchestra pit, and sometimes even the conductor. Following this template, Hannah Lash’s fifth chamber opera, Desire, for three singers and a string quartet, drew a viewer not merely into a story but into the psyche of the protagonist.
The journey to this commission ‒ the American composer’s second for the Miller Theatre at Columbia University ‒ was launched years ago at the Eastman School of Music, where Lash, the founding members of the JACK Quartet, and the baritone heard here were students. The JACK Quartet, founded in 2005 and one of the country’s busiest new-music ensembles, has played many of Lash’s works over the years. (The quartet’s extensive discography includes Filigree, with Lash’s music for string quartet played by different incarnations of the ensemble and available to stream free.)
After the quartet had appeared on concerts at the Miller Theatre, they introduced executive director Melissa Smey to Lash, by then a prolific and much-honored composer teaching at Yale. As Smey and Lash planned a Composer Portrait concert for 2016, Lash mentioned the idea of a dramatic work she wanted to write for the JACK Quartet and contralto Kirsten Sollek. Smey liked the idea of a work created for specific performers, and the commission for Desire was born.
“I don’t consider myself to be a teller of stories,” Lash has said, and indeed the scenario offers only the sketchiest of narratives. A woman asleep in bed with her lover awakes, distraught, and follows a compelling need to leave the house, where she discovers a beautiful garden. A mysterious figure calls to her and encourages her wondrous discoveries. They approach one another, and a bird emerges when their hands touch. In spite of the stranger’s encouragement and the garden’s allure, she feels driven to go home but promises to return.
Her lover has missed her and asks where she has been, but he does not believe her answer and says she was dreaming. She leaves again, but the garden has lost its color and beauty; the spirit cannot tell her why. Her lover follows her and confronts the mysterious figure. The woman leaves the men arguing; now alone, she rediscovers in ecstasy the garden, its glowing splendor multiplied. Less a story than the portrayal of a woman’s inner state, the scenario incarnates a halting, ambiguous journey of self-discovery.
The stage is defined by two angled white walls, smudged and spattered with black, empty but for a bed, four chairs for the quartet, and a bare white tree suspended upside down. The quartet, dressed to match the walls, begins to play as the woman awakes. When she rises to go out, the bed recedes and the vine-covered walls glow with a series of saturated colors. The man-spirit who calls out to her has blue skin and wears an intricate robe suggesting mysterious rituals. When she returns to her lover, colors fade to the gray of the bedroom. Later, when the woman rediscovers her garden, she is bathed in light. (The direction is by Rachel Dickstein, set by Kristen Robinson, costumes by Kate Fry, and lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew.)
The score functions like an instrumental sound track supporting both silent action and slow-moving vocal lines; musically the string quartet is the real star. The string writing often recalls early Schoenberg or Debussy: episodic, often contrapuntally intricate, with frequent resort to pizzicato, floating in and out of tonality. A gentle opening solo violin theme is joined by the rest of the quartet, accompanying the woman in her growing restlessness. This opening theme recurs several times throughout the piece, and at pivotal points a four-part string chorale creates a halo around the moment.
It is nearly 10 minutes into the hour-long piece before she utters her first wordless “Ah, ah,” in a deep contralto. The voices float above the the sometimes frenetic strings in calm, sustained solo phrases, with rare moments of beautiful harmony. The woman and the spirit express themselves in an enigmatic language, while the lover expresses himself in mundane conversation. The language of Lash’s libretto (written with Cori Ellison) is cryptic, a vehicle for vocal utterances that convey more meaning as pure sound than in the actual words.
Musically and visually, I found Desire quite beautiful but also frustrating, as though symbol served to disguise emotion. Despite the potent and promising metaphor of creation, the performance felt oddly abstract. While Lash describes the work as an allegory of finding one’s creative self, the title, set-up, and imagery suggest more erotic force than the cerebral ritual played out onstage. The Woman’s androgynous hair and clothing and their chaste duet in the garden speak of repression at a moment when she is in the throes of personal discovery.
In the pivotal encounter between the two men, the garden apparition repeats, “I am hers; she is mine,” while the lover insists, “She is mine, I am hers.” Creation versus possession ‒ we get it, but which will prevail? When an opera named “Desire” climaxes with two men arguing over a woman ‒ even if one of the men is only a metaphor ‒ I expect more than the woman walking out on the discussion, which soon fizzles.
This production’s minimal forces, the spare staging with its muted color palette, and the ritualistic vocal lines reminded me of Only the Sound Remains, another recent chamber opera exploring unseen dimensions. But director Peter Sellars grounded Saariaho’s work with a physicality that would have added a welcome dimension to Lash’s piece.
The performances were splendid. The extraordinary JACK Quartet made light work of a very intricate score. Countertenor Daniel Moody as Man 1 (garden spirit) had compelling stage presence and a powerful, wide-ranging voice that blended beautifully with the Woman. Baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert sounded mellifluous and personified a solid, stolid Man 2 (the lover). As the Woman, Kirsten Sollek was dramatically mesmerizing, with a voice that could sound like a deep organ pipe or rise powerfully to the heights. The three singing actors maintained intense engagement even when the words occasionally felt flat, and ensemble was tightly coordinated even without a conductor (music direction by Daniela Candillari).
Desire’s premiere performances took place on Oct. 16 and 17. Hannah Lash’s next world premiere will be 2 Songs, to be performed at Yale University on Nov. 10. For information go here.
The Jack Quartet will appear at The Crypt Sessions in Harlem on Oct. 21. For tickets go here.